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Interview With RIM’s Alec Saunders on the BlackBerry Developer Ecosystem

Back in August I got a chance to sit down with Mike Kirkup who was then the Senior Director of Global Developer Relations at RIM. Since then Mike has left and Alec Saunders has made a big splash as the new Vice President of Developer Relations and Ecosystem Development at RIM even posting his email address publicly. This week we got a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain on a few of the issues developers want to know about the current BlackBerry Platforms, initiatives, and future goals. Read on for the details!

What is the main message that you are trying to convey to current and potential BlackBerry developers?

Alec clarified his message to developers as a three pronged approach that he sort of hit upon at DevCon.

  • There are over 70 million BlackBerry users which is a large community which RIM has been growing every quarter.
  • There is money to be made on the BlackBerry Platform which was highlighted in this recent independent survey.
  • There is a bright future in BBX and the future BlackBerry ecosystem that you can develop for now.

What is your main goal or measure for success? Or simply what is your departments mission statement for developer relations?

Alec summed it all up into two words: “More Apps.” Though he did say the whole mission statement was to “Educate, support, and inspire developers to create new, better, and more apps for BlackBerry.”

So what are some of your goals to improve the experience of current and new BlackBerry developers?

There are three main areas that we are focusing on to improve the development experience for developers both new and experienced:

  • Improving the process of getting up and running
  • Improving documentation (I pushed him to make the documentation more social and community driven)
  • Improving the actual tools themselves

We also measure success based on many metrics but you can boil it down to the number of apps available and the satisfaction of developers. We then base our strategy on beta feedback, developer surveys, and other information points like the support forums. If they see an issue escalated in the forums by multiple devs they will escalate it further as a priority.

Tell us a little bit about some of the new initiatives for the developer relations team?

I am a firm believer of having “boots on the ground” and reaching directly to developer communities. For example, a few companies came to us saying that they were confused about what RIM’s future BBX plans were for peripherals (think stuff like card swipers, printers, etc). We ended up organizing a whole Meetup in Waterloo where these companies interfaced directly with the teams developing the peripherals, BBX strategy and groundwork.

On top of that the Developer Relations team is a growing team around the world. We have people in many growing markets which is an area of large growth for RIM. They are also reaching out to developers in the support forums and Twitter @BlackBerryDev where developers can reach out directly to RIM’s team. You can even simply email Alec directly and he will try to delegate it.

What is your team doing in terms of recruiting new developers for BBX (HTML5, WebWorks, Flash, Native, Android) and the current BlackBerry ecosystem (Java, WebWorks)?

With BBX and even WebWorks we are reaching out to communities of developers to help them bring their expertise and catalog of apps to the BBX platform or WebWorks on both platforms. For example, we did this with game engines on the PlayBook along with web developer communities like Sencha and jQuery. We are also working on different opensource tools for the BBX platform which we have posted on our GitHub repositories to help native BBX developers. This goal is to help attract communities to the platform by making it enticing.

What about differentiating factors of the BBX and PlayBook platform? For example, currently it is not possible to create what RIM calls a “Super App” for the BlackBerry PlayBook. When is that functionality coming?

This is something that is definitely in the works. We have these “Super App” APIs in the works now for everything from notifications to deep system integration. Definitely more on this in the future as we keep on improving the PlayBook 2.0 OS with some of the features possibly being exposed to developers to test in beta.

What about more powerful integration into the core OS such as developers building their own Bluetooth, Bridge, NFC, USB, or other integrations into the hardware?

This is also coming. As long as it does not compromise the security and reliability of the OS then we are working on it. It might include some sort of extra certifications for Bluetooth stacks or drivers.

Does BBX allow RIM to be more agile in dealing with the development environment and updates? Until now RIM has worked in a 2 year cycle where they release a product and then they get feedback during the lifecycle throughout the release and then a year later provide the improvement. Is BBX going to finally change this?

BBX definitely allows us to be more agile. For example, with BBX the carrier only certifies the radio stack allowing RIM to update the rest of the OS without needing carrier certification every time. I (Alec) personally love working with developers and I plan on making it a much more effective feedback loop. Talking directly to developers and then taking that feedback back to the appropriate teams at RIM to take action. This will allow us to do continuous improvements to developer API’s and functionality instead of simply trying to ship the whole kitchen sink.

What about App World? How does that fit into the developer relations sphere?

App World is an integral story of the BlackBerry experience. Downloads are growing like crazy with 90 million in August to 140 million in October. They also noticed that 200 BBM connected apps account for 10% of downloads which just shows how much of a differentiator the BBM Social Platform SDK is.

What about for BBX? Will App World remain the only place to find apps for BBX just like the PlayBook? Is there a reason RIM is deviating from the current BlackBerry model to a more Apple-like walled garden of app markets?

The PlayBook and BBX app store experience is an “unapologetically curated experience. “ RIM is maintaining this control for a few reasons including the fact that we have found customers prefer to go to one place for apps. This also gives RIM the ability to exclude malicious apps and have editorial control so we don’t have an abundance of irrelevant or unnecessary apps.

This is important for devs too because it increases discoverability. I used to work at a startup and the hardest part was dealing with payments and transactions especially with carriers wanting a large portion of deals. App World handles all of that and offers 16 countries with carrier billing. This is critical in developing markets and places where users do not have credit cards, a key growth market for RIM.

What about the current limitations of App World such as a lack of discount codes, coupons, beta testing ability, slow approval times and release times, small pictures, no video trailers, and gift cards?

Stay tuned! Many of those are coming! I cannot speak directly to that but the App World team is working hard on adding those features after a successful App World 3.0 release.

What about HTML5 and WebWorks? Now that Adobe has killed their mobile Flash development to focus on HTML5 does that play well into RIM’s strategy.

HTML5 and WebWorks allows us to recruit new devs that weren’t previously mobile to easily make their applications mobile. It is also a key piece for devs to create enterprise apps that use HTML5 for easier deployment. RIM is following the standards and continues to expand on them. Our Torch team is blazing the trail by adhering to the latest standards and implementing things like WebGL.

What about PlayBook functions and BBX functions and API’s beyond the standards? Say for example the desktop notification API in HTML5?

The Torch team is planning on staying pretty close to the standards but exposing capabilities of the BBX platform. I cannot speak directly to the notifications API but we plan on exposing the BBX APIs to WebWorks developers and changing them to HTML5 standards if it expands to cover it. This is a way for developers to move away from proprietary and the current push by other ecosystems to native development.

Well it was a pleasure to speak to you Alec. We wish you, your team, and RIM the best of luck!

If you have any more questions you want us to ask Alec let us know in the comments!

13 total comments on this postSubmit your comment!
  1. Since Saunders accepted this position, there has been a certain shift in the transparency, relations with developers, media and enthusiasts. Instead of keeping their mouth shut a la RIM, Saunders gives straigth answers.

    Alec Saunders for CEO.

  2. I love how I can tweet him or email him and he will respond!!!

    Its awesome to know that your thought or opinion has been read by someone at the top!!

  3. Now Ronen… what did you learn that you CAN’T write about lol

    drop some hints!

  4. Ronen, great interview. I think its a great idea to have 1 app store to go to for apps, music, movies, books, podcasts and equipment (they should combine forces with the other stores – Berry Review, Crackberry)

    I have some questions about the new BBX phones:

    1. Will the BBX phone have a removeable battery?

    2. Are they going to segregate and the BBX phones into 16, 32, 64 gb memory models like Apple?

    3. Will there be 2 convienance keys on the BBX phone and will the media keys be on top?

    4. After the all touch model is released, when can we expect other models (qwerty touch, slider) to be released.

    • @Brian that stuff comes from other sources
      @DPR I could not ask him that much about BBX because he couldn’t say anything beyond what has already been said about the actual phones. If I am not mistaken a removable battery is still on the drawing board. They also do plan on creating multiple models beyond the touch model.

  5. Very good interview! Good man, I think RIM made a good call in hiring him.

  6. Last night we were in a conference call with Alec and 30+ Developer Group Managers worldwide, even though i had some difficulties with my phone line but it’s cool to see Alec approaches directly to developers globally and he always replies your emails. That’s what such a developer like me need all the time.

    Thank you Alec and Ronen 😉

  7. Great interview!!

  8. Thanks all. Yeah Alec is definitely bringing a new sort of perspective to the table. I think it is also nice to see somebody in the position who is not afraid of their own shadow if they say the wrong thing.

  9. App World needs some work. It’s too hard to discover things on there.

  10. For the record Sencha doesn’t care about the PlayBook. There is no specific profile and it’s not optimized at all for the device. By looking at their forum, they have no reason to change their priorities. It’s clear that the money is elsewhere.

    But let’s hope that Alec will be able to speed up some of the necessary changes needed to make the PlayBook an interesting platform for apps.
    Most of our current gripes with the platform were listed above, but here is our list anyway 😉
    – No major advertising broker/platform is interested in the PlayBook and RIM’s service is ignoring requests to take part of the programme. This should have been in place from the start to support developers
    – Webtrends is still not available. Stats in Appworld are subpar. There is no reliable ways of tracking usage patterns and performance
    – All apps released through Appworld can be freely copied and modified due to a major security oversight that was revealed 6 months ago. We didn’t expect that from RIM and plugging that hole should have been a #1 priority
    – The BBM API should have been released on both the smartphones and the PlayBook simultaneously
    – Webworks doesn’t include node.js or HTML5 websockets which would allow apps to consume real-time content without having to use a server component
    – Ripple (HTML simulator) is broken/incomplete, which means that we still have to rely on custom made test environment for basics and on on-device testing for advanced features
    – The Webworks SDK should have offered the same API as the AIR SDK. It’s ridiculous to have had to wait 6 months to save/load files
    – The Webworks SDK is never hotfixed. Instead we get large releases that follow the published roadmap.
    – The Webworks API is not compatible with Google Maps, the #1 apps API. Bing is faster than GM because Google doesn’t care about BBX, but it doesn’t offer all the functionalities GM offers
    – The Webworks API contains no encryption API. While we can use our own. Hardware accelerated APIs would be nice
    – In the current conditions, it’s impossible to beta test an app on a large scale

    On the positive side, the team interacting with devs in the devs forum is generally quite responsive and usually very helpful. A few devs have also started projects or have decided to share some of their code to help overcome some of the current limitations, so the community is alive and kicking and it helps taking some of the frustration away while we all wait for 2.0 to hopefully be able to release more advanced, engaging, exciting HTML5 apps.
    RIM seems to have a lot of ongoing projects aiming at making this happen and we can only hope that the PlayBook refresh due next year will get a better launch. It’s the perfect form factor for a personal tablet.

    • It seems like you have really dug into WebWorks interfaSys. I personally think RIM is on to something with WebWorks but so far they are still treating it as an afterthought. They need to really push feature parity for it along with driving other features. I kept on asking Alec if RIM would be innovating in the space to push the standards further and he could not comment. For example, wouldn’t it be cool if you could use the desktop notification API to show a notification on the PlayBook?

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